Life as a Line Pilot

After my three week training adventure in Sydney, I felt like I had, after leaving a cadet, returned to Albury a pilot, like a young warrior filled with new confidence from his first victory, returning home a man.
I was finally over the hurdle (or perhaps ten foot wall) of training. I was free to move forward, do my job and earn my worth.
My first line flight was Christmas eve. Coincidentally the captain was my housemate Tony, who took me under his wing, a bit like an older brother would take care of his younger brother.
I immediately noticed a more relaxed atmosphere. There were no lessons, questions or testing from a training captain. We’d just go flying, enjoy it and help each other to get the job done professionally. This was the first time since flying solo in a piper warrior, almost a year ago, that I wasn’t under direct training. It was also the first time since then that I could just take it all in and enjoy the view and the job with time to chat about life and have a laugh. And we’d often find a lot to laugh about. – One time our flight attendant, Nell, who was also my housemate, generously offered to hang my jacket in the cabin coat rack, rather than hanging it myself behind my seat in the flight deck, as I usually would…

What I didn’t know, was while we were in flight, Nell took out a small sewing kit and stitched up the cuffs of my jacket sleeves. So after landing in chilly Melbourne, I stepped out of the flight deck, took my jacket from Nell, trotted down the stairs, secured the propeller and threw my jacket on. Only to find my hands stuck in my sleeves. With a confused “wtf” face, I turned around to see Nell and the first row of passengers peering out of the door giggling at me in my struggle. After an awkward moment, I shook my head and laughed, then hung my jacket from the propeller (not a professional look I know) and stood in the cold, while our 25 passengers disembarked, all having a sympathetic laugh at me.

After Christmas day, we began a reduced summer schedule. Since we were slightly short of first officers in Albury, I was still flying five or six days a week, but often only 2 flights a day. Some days we’d do a “Cheeky morning or afternoon Melbourne,” a flight to Melbourne and back, a total of three hours work for the day. I would start work at 6 am and be done by 9 am, home in time for breakfast.

Saabs parked in the summer heat, waiting for the evening sectors

Even though the summer pace was very leisurely. I was still very focused, I wasn’t ready or mentally able to let my guard down. I had only 400 hours in my logbook and a lot more confidence to gain. When you’re that inexperienced, you know there’s still a lot you don’t know or haven’t seen yet. Your performance tends to be inconsistent, more affected by fatigue and high workload since your new skills and habits are still being conditioned. So you tend to make mistakes slips and errors more often.
On top of that, each day that I went to work, I was worried that I would fly with the local Check Captain. Who had a bit of a “hard-ass” reputation, and could make my life difficult. To be fair, I’d copped a bit of heat from him during my training and I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that again. So, before each flight on the drive to work, I’d recite emergency briefings and memory items, just in case I flew with him. I wanted to start on the right foot and look sharp early, so he’d be less critical of any other mistakes I might make to his high standard during the day.
Between this and the extra training I had received before being released to the Line. It was a real blessing for me, compared to only scraping through at the minimum standard. My base level was higher than the minimum standard it needed to be for my experience level. So even with the natural regression that we all have after a period of training, I still maintained a proficient and compliant standard.

Thankfully, because every 3 months we’re either being tested in the simulator or the aircraft for a re-currency or Line check. And if you’re below the standard on the given day, you’ll fail and then go back to the stress of retraining, worrying about your future.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much positive feedback or praise in this job, there’s always something we can improve. And we get overwhelming negative feedback if we screw up. You never see the thousands of successful flights on the front page of the newspaper, only the rare unsuccessful ones. So it is up to yourself as a professional to monitor your standards keep improving and avoid the trap of complacency.

Only after a few months on the line. I received some rare praise that is still memorable to this day. All-be-it from a second-hand source. – My housemate Nell came home after a flight with the mentioned “Hardass Check captain”, who she got along with fantastically I should add. She told me who about her day and reported to me, “He mentioned that you’re a good operator and you’re doing well.” This comment was a welcome surprise and hedged my confidence. It was nice to hear those words about myself as a pilot. In this industry, our reputation precedes us, and in small circles, we’re often the last to hear about our reputation.
I was happy to receive that indirect feedback. Especially since there were quite a few pilots in the company who had an opinion that cadets didn’t deserve to be there. We had “jumped the queue”, had it easier than they had, were inexperienced and would be unsafe to fly with and they didn’t want us there. Even if they liked us in person, it still bothered them in the beginning that we were there. This only lasted for a year or two before it faded away. And by the time I left Rex, half of the pilots in the company had started flying as cadets, they were also some of the best pilots that I flew with.
Coincidentally or not, after hearing the positive feedback about myself, “hard-ass check captain” became enjoyable to fly with and not so intimidating.

By February I was doing twenty flights per week and thoroughly enjoying myself. I remember waking up before 5 am thinking; I can’t imagine another job that I’d be as happy to wake up at this time in the morning for. It was a major contrast to only a few years earlier; dragging myself out of bed at 8:20 am to get to High School (still half asleep) at 8:48 am, two minutes before homeroom finished just so I could have my attendance marked off without a “late”.
Some days I almost had to pinch myself that at the age of only twenty-two, I had the career that I had.
As I gained experience, I was growing more confident. Thankfully, it’s never too long before your confidence gets tested.
Cleared for takeoff in Sydney one afternoon, Tony pushed the power levers forward, calling “set power”. I moved the CTOT switch forward, setting the takeoff power then scanned the engine gauges and instruments. Before I could even look outside, the aircraft jerked with yaw to the right. “STOPPING!” Tony said quickly as he stepped on the breaks and brought the aircraft to a stop. I was completely lost between setting power and finding ourselves unexpectedly stopped. I didn’t even realise that I had just experienced my first rejected takeoff. I’d only ever practised rejecting in the Simulator from high speed. This was a very low speed reject, barely even 20knots, so combined with the startle effect, I didn’t identify what had happened and I didn’t know what procedures to apply. Thanks to Tony leading, I finally caught up to what was going on; The right engine had lost power early into the take-off roll. An “Inadvertent auto-coursen” I later learned from an engineer. But the most important things I learned from this experience was; how much I still had to learn and how much I still wasn’t ready for. So the learning never stops. Luckily for me, I had many years flying as a first officer ahead of me, flying with skilled captains who I could learn from.

Day One of Line Training – First Flight in a SAAB 340

My first day of line training was once again, completely outside of my comfort zone.
Fortunately, I’d been able to observe about 30 flights from the jump seat. That extra seat in the flight deck behind the Pilots. – As trainees, this was a good way to familiarise ourselves with the job and the environment. It helped take the edge off a little on our first flight. It also gave us a reference to how a commercial flight should come together and look.

My first flight was out of Wagga Wagga, a 2-hour drive north from my base in Albury. This was due to the limited availability of Training Captains.
The sign-on time was in the late afternoon at about 4 pm. The duty was a Sydney turn, or simply, a return flight to Sydney and back.
One frustrating thing about a new flying job is learning the logistics of things. It’s like starting school on a new campus. But worse. You tend to find yourself being locked out of terminals and crew rooms waiting to be let in since you don’t have the security access card. And every airport is different. So look forward to being lost and asking for help.
A hot tip for young players, most Airlines have a route manual or company crew information pages that have most the information you need for each airport you visit. Myself, still drowning in manuals, hadn’t figured this out yet. Remember, this was the time before the iPad, so finding information was hard and a mountain of paper manuals can be overwhelming

I found my way to the crew room, an old portable building behind the maintenance hanger at Wagga Wagga airport. There, I was to meet my Training Captain for the days’ flying.
After half an hour of sitting with a ball of nerves in my belly, and not being sure what to do with myself while I wait. In strolls, a typical Aussie bloke from the countryside; casual, friendly, no drama and very confident, especially flying Saab 340 around. 
We’d typically sign on 45 minutes before our departure time. In that time we’d study the weather forecasts and notices for the day, check the payloads, plan the fuel required, brief the flight attendant, do the pre-flight checks, set up the aircraft systems and board the passengers. Its usually a busy time, with just enough time to get it all done. On a good day, with minimal weather, an experienced and current crew can do it in 30 minutes.
However, I was far from experienced and was pretty much just going along for the ride. The training captain took on much of my workload as well as his own. Somehow he still started the engines on time. By this point, I didn’t even know what month it was, let alone whether we were on schedule or not. Anyway, that wasn’t for me to worry about. The first flight for a cadet is about focusing on the basic, normal SOPs; primarily Scan flows, use of checklists and some handling.
You might be wondering something by now. And yes. After the simulator, our first time flying the real aircraft is with paying passengers on board. I was surprised too. This is standard across the industry, simply because simulators are so realistic now, that we’re well prepared and safe enough. Plus there are a number of other precautions such as taking a safety pilot – a trained First Officer sitting in the jump seat, keeping an eye on things and picking up the slack, or ready to take over from the trainee if conditions get a bit hairy. So you can relax, you’re in safe hands.

I honestly don’t remember much of that flight, It was a blur. All I remember is that it was my sector as pilot flying (PF). Meaning I was to do the takeoff and landing.
I don’t clearly remember the takeoff, for all I know, my eyes could have been closed, or perhaps it’s blended in with the thousand if done since.
However, I will never forget my first time landing. I had spent the flight trying to catch my brain up to the aircraft. The Saab was fast! 270knots, that’s 500km/h! Twice as fast as the PA-44 Piper Seminole, that I’d flown 23 hours in during my training at the academy. And almost 3 times faster than the PA-28 Piper Warrior, which I did the majority of my training in (170 hours).
I was flying faster and higher than I’d ever flown before. 

While my body was in the flight deck, my brain was trailing somewhere between row 11 and 10 miles behind the aircraft. Before I knew it, we were in the traffic circuit pattern of Sydney international Airport, at night. Moonless and dark with only some city lights and a lit-up pair of runways. 

With significant coaching from my training Captain, I found myself on final approach of runway 34R, fully configured and stable. The postage stamp of glowing runways lights looked like the familiar simulator images which I found comforting. I took a breath, possibly my first of the 45-minute flight, and focused on what was in front of me. Miraculously I pulled the landing off quite well, with a smooth touch down on the centerline.
I’ll be humble and put that one down to beginners luck.

We continued to roll down the runway after touch down, the captain took over control, as per standard procedure, to exit the runway and taxi to the bay.
Once clear of the runway, I switch to the Ground frequency, 121.7, and check-in with the controller using my rehearsed line and big boy voice on the radio; “Sydney Ground, Rex six seventy-four, for bay foxtrot Fifteen” I say. The controller promptly responds with rapid-fire taxi instructions “Rex-Six-seventy-four taxi Tango-Lima-Bravo hold-short Bravo-eight”… my eyes glaze over like a stunned deer in headlights. I hold down the push to talk button on my radio comms panel and stutter and stumble my way through the clearance read back, “uh, taxi tango… Uh Bravo-eight..” Getting it completely wrong. The captain swoops in cool as ice and corrects my incorrect read-back. I’m as useful as a passenger, and my stress levels are through the roof.

Sydney airport map

Parking on the bay in Sydney, I have 40 minutes to turn the mush in my head back into to a brain and help “turn-around” the aircraft for the flight back to Wagga Wagga. 

Ready for departure in Sydney.

The return sector, I’m Pilot Not Flying which means I’m on the radios, doing paperwork and saying “checked” a lot. (This role has since been renamed pilot monitoring (PM). Since the title suggests a more active role in the multi-crew flight deck.)

Once again this flight was a blur. Half-way back to Wagga Wagga, the captain leans back in his seat casually and asks, “How ya doing mate? We haven’t left you in Sydney have we?” He and safety FO, laughing at me in my overwhelmed state. “I dunno” I reply, “I think you left me somewhere over the western suburbs after takeoff.” I couldn’t believe how relaxed these guys were, they were just chatting casually and having a laugh as we burn through the sky at 500km/h.

And like that, we were back in Wagga Wagga, a slick landing by the captain. We taxi in, shut down, disembark, bung the engines and I headed to the hotel for 6 hours sleep, before a 6 am sign-on the next morning, ready to do it all again. 

Day two was slightly better, I was still in survival mode, trying to keep up with all the new information. It continued like this for a while to come…

Simulator Training – Do the Homework!

“I know you’ve never done this before, but why don’t you already know how to do this?” 

I don’t know if that was ever said, but it’s what I felt. Right before I realised my, good enough study habits that got me through high school and flight school were underdeveloped and having me come up short. 

Most aircraft endorsements typically include about 10 simulator sessions of 3 to 4 hours shared between 2 trainee first officers.
Followed by a skills test with a regular line Captain supporting from the left seat.
I have left many Simulator sessions mentally and physically exhausted. They can be intense and brutal like a mental and physical workout. But they can also be super fun. 

Full motion saab340 simulator used for training.

All of the easy familiarization things had been covered in the first two simulator sessions. Mostly what we’d been able to practice on a paper tiger (a mock cockpit made of paper) at home and stuff that wasn’t too procedural; basic handling and so on. so I could just follow the instructor and wing it, learning ‘on the fly’ to get through.

Practicing scans on my 777 paper-tiger. Yes, that is an ironing board.

Our third session was more procedural. We were practicing rapid depressurisation and emergency descent procedures, which require a number of steps in sequence, like a choreographed dance. Needless to say, I didn’t know all the steps. To be honest, I either completely forgot, didn’t even know to or totally overlooked, studying to understand and memorize the steps before the session in the first place. Maybe I thought the instructor was going to spoon-feed us. Maybe I was just overwhelmed with a workload higher than I’d expected or ever experienced. Or I was just being dumb and ignorant. 

Fortunately, I am pretty good at “watch and repeat” and I probably do rely on it a little too much. Either way, I was sharp enough to let my buddy go first since the instructor didn’t demonstrate, so I could watch him.

Then it was my turn to copy. I managed to bullsh*t my way through 80% of it. Oxygen mask on, start the descent to 10,000feet, etc. But then; the turn 45° off track for 1minute to establish a parallel track offset. I misunderstood for; a 45° degree angle of bank turn for 1minute. So, I rolled into a steep turn maneuver and turned about 220° off track. I actually nailed it… I just nailed the completely wrong target. The trainer stopped the simulator. I don’t remember his words… but it was probably along the lines of “WTF are you doing?” It was quite obvious I didn’t study properly beforehand. It was pretty damn embarrassing.RD

Sometime after this, I was reminded of two important lessons, Just about everything you need to know is written in books somewhere. And, flight Training is always flight Testing, because you don’t start lesson 2 until you complete/pass lesson 1, and so on.

Saab 340 emergency descent SOP
The pages of the manual that I should have studied.

So here is the best piece of advice I can give to a student or pilot in training (and I’m sure its sound advice that applies to many other learning applications too):

  1. Lead your own education or training. Don’t rely on the teacher to feed you information, simply use them as a respected guide and resource.
    To quote, author and ex-Navy SEAL Commander, Jocko Willnik – “Take extreme ownership”.
  2. Find out in advance what you will be covering in each lesson. ie, always have the course plan on hand and lesson plan for each class, flight, or Sim session. 
  3. Be outcome-focused, i.e. today’s class/Sim we need to perform successfully A B C and D (found on the lesson plan) to progress to the next lesson. That way nothing is a surprise and you can just go and check the boxes off. 
  4. What information and procedures do I need, to be able to perform A B C and D successfully. Then go find the information in the manuals, preview, and rehearse if needed. 

This will allow you to turn up to your Instructor or teacher with all the knowledge and right building blocks ready to go. All he/she should do is help you put them together, help you build your own skills, and maybe contribute an occasional missing block.
Having your teacher go find and show you all your building blocks, is a waste of time! do yourself a favor, be a great student, and get the best out of your teacher.

At the end of each session’s debrief, confirm with your instructor, what you’ll be covering tomorrow, they might even tell you where to find the building blocks that you’ll need for tomorrow’s session. 

Then go home, review today’s lesson if needed. Then find tomorrow’s building blocks, preview, and rehearse, so you can hit the ground running to check the boxes again tomorrow. Oh, and get some rest.
“Prior preparation, prevents poor performance” – Almost every Training Captain I’ve met.

Personally, I didn’t do this in my Saab 340 endorsement and first officer training. I also really suffered because of it. I only figured out this strategy and structure later in my career. And hopefully, I remember next time I’m doing an endorsement or upgrade and drowning in information.
“Structure and discipline result in freedom” remember that.

In Aviation, these building blocks are our Standard operating procedures or SOPs. They are the backbone of aviation. In the simulator, we can practice these SOPs, maneuvers, and simulated emergencies in a safe controlled environment.

Click here for a short video of pilots practicing an emergency

So when you’re not getting your butt kicked and brain saturated with new information. The Simulator is actually really enjoyable. It is always an invaluable resource that builds experience and can confidence rapidly. For example, you could practice 5 landings in 10 minutes. In the real world, that would take an hour to get the same focused practice.

And on those days that we finish our training efficiently, we sometimes get a chance to have some fun. Barrel roll? No worries! Fly UNDER the Sydney harbor bridge?  too easy.  50 foot fly by at 300knots? you bet. Can we try gliding it onto the runway, with both engines failed? You bet your ass we can try that! All the fun things you can do when your instructor doesn’t have to waste time showing you where to find building blocks.

sim ua

These fun extras we occasionally get to do in the simulator, I have found to be surprisingly beneficial when it comes to confidence and handling. Even though I’ll never practically do it in the real world. The exercise lets you see outside of the envelope of normal operation. Therefore you’re less startled and more confident if you do ever find yourself outside the envelope. Which should lead to a better reaction, decision and outcome.


Fortunately that day, with a bit of retraining and block finding, I got through the training session and continued on to complete my endorsement with one extra training session to improve my new skills and gain some more confidence. Far from perfect, but good enough.

Now, for the real deal. Flying the real aircraft!